Fictive bodies

As Dante arrives on the last terrace of Purgatory, where lust, or ‘troppo vigore’ (too much vigor) is being purified, he gets a wow-moment from the other souls-in-residence. Everyone is astonished that Dante the pilgrim doesn’t, in their words, ‘seem to have a fictive body’ (‘Colui non par corpo fittizio’). They are obviously right. Dante walks through Purgatory with his body, that is with himself, in the plenitude of his existence. He’s not a walking metaphor, a wandering sign, but, at least by the internal logic of the text, it is the real thing.

Dante’s journey is an embodied experience, not a flight of the mind, or an intellectual reverie, or an altered state of consciousness – although it is all of these things as well and at once.

In Dante’s Comedy, the body is key. You take that away and you also take away much of the afterworlds, as they only make sense, to the protagonist and to the readers, as places either devoid of or enriched of a body or superbody experience.

The body is, paradoxically, a metaphysical obsession. In Hell, souls suffer in the absence of bodies. In Paradise, they are expecting new bodies. In Purgatory, they are recovering the plenary bodily experience which they didn’t enjoy in life because of sin.

The jury is still out on the question of whether the Comedy is pure fiction, or allegory or something else altogether, an unprecedented and since then unmatched report of the self in touch with the source of being and the fount of meaning. Does the Comedy itself has a fictive body or is the body of the text a sign of a different kind of body, one that baffles readers today in the same way that Dante’s body baffled the souls in the afterlife?

In making the body an essential part of the Comedy’s architecture, Dante enables us to see humanity in a different light, not as mind trapped in a body or body slave to a totalitarian mind, but of personhood, unique and irreducible, for which the body as well as the mind co-shape the lived experience in ways which reveal the essence, truth and potential of a human being, a messy articulation of desires and dreams on a collision course with the forces of history, but always accountable for its own actions and open towards transcendence.

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